HARSH ENVIRONMENT: A gold miner working underground at a gold mine in Boksburg, South Africa, in 1997. The book exposes the harsh conditions under which black South Africans have had to work in the country’s gold industry. Picture: AP
HARSH ENVIRONMENT: A gold miner working underground at a gold mine in Boksburg, South Africa, in 1997. The book exposes the harsh conditions under which black South Africans have had to work in the country’s gold industry. Picture: AP
HARSH ENVIRONMENT: A gold miner working underground at a gold mine in Boksburg, South Africa, in 1997. The book exposes the harsh conditions under which black South Africans have had to work in the country’s gold industry. Picture: AP
HARSH ENVIRONMENT: A gold miner working underground at a gold mine in Boksburg, South Africa, in 1997. The book exposes the harsh conditions under which black South Africans have had to work in the country’s gold industry. Picture: AP

If there is a book that accentuates the harrowing brutality wrought by South Africa’s gold mining industry on mineworkers, their families and their communities, then Broke and Broken: The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa (Blackbird Books) is it.

According to a 2013 paper by KPMG, “mining contributed directly to the establishment of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the development of infrastructure, providing the catalyst for the development of other economic sectors and, in doing so, elevating the status of South Africa’s local economy”.

But these glowing remarks mask the ghastly effects the gold mining industry had on black South Africans who were plucked out of reservoirs of cheap labour established by colonial and apartheid whites to fuel industries that enforced their supremacy.

Written and photographed by journalists Lucas Ledwaba and Leon Sadiki, the authors tell the stories of former mineworkers who suffer from debilitating lung diseases such as silicosis and tuberculosis, and the families of workers who died of these diseases.

The book begins with the story of Jipeta Joseph Mtjati, from rural Lesotho, who suffers from incurable silicosis, and foregrounds the intergenerational nature of mineworkers. His father and two brothers had worked in South Africa’s gold mines and died from silicosis. Silicosis is caused by the inhalation of silica dust – found in materials common in mining such as drilled rocks.

Mtjati explains the terrible work conditions: “They used to tell us we are wasting time by waiting for the dust to subside. So we were forced to work. We tasted the dust in our mouths and felt it in our nostrils.”

Mtjati was retrenched in 2009 after working for 34 years in the mines, and was paid a measly R39 000. His story pales in comparison to how gold mines have orphaned young children. Lesedi Kompi was 12 when his father died seven years ago, and he had to care for his two younger sisters. His strength is highlighted in a beautiful passage about his arrival at hospital to do his daily job of caring for his father, but was told his father had died.

He had to break the news to his siblings, and did so maturely: “I told my siblings that they should not worry since our father had died, that they should not complain because I was there for them.”

There are other chapters in the book that detail the horrors of children growing up without parents due to the atrocities of gold mining houses which refused to adequately ventilate workspaces.

That is why the landmark ruling passed by the South Gauteng High Court earlier this year is a victory for mineworkers. The ruling – which is analysed in the book – allows for over 15 000 former mineworkers and families of those who have died to launch a class action suit against mining houses, where evidence shows they knew that excessive exposure to silica dust would be detrimental to their health. Mining houses are appealing the ruling.

The book is laden with thought-provoking pictures of ailing mineworkers, their families and the beautiful rural areas where they lived. Sadiki said: “My visual approach needed me to spend time with families, to be able to capture the true essence of their emotions.”

It is this sensitivity that makes this book a truly seminal one.